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There is a plethora of styles for citations and bibliographies in scientific journals and books, even within a single field. They built upon traditions, which are usually not arbitrary but were once chosen with well intentions for the benefit of either author, typesetter (now software) or reader.

Although it’s probably a good idea to not break expectations in this regard in general, has there actually been UX research on what is the most suitable reference style for readers? In other words, what are their needs and how to satisfy them best? Are they universal or are there severe differences between fields and media, calling for different solutions?

Some user desires

As a reader when reading a reference in text (i.e. a citation or cite) I want to easily recognize papers and books I already know. “Author” and “author-year” citations tend to do that better than “acronym” and “numeric” labels, but a numeric or symbolic footnote marker which links to full bibliographic details at the bottom of the current page may be just as good or even better for that, but that would probably only happen on first occurrence.

Unknown references, I would like to be able to look up as easily as possible in a library catalog etc. using the data found in the bibliography. To do that, traditionally, I needed to know who wrote it, how the piece is called exactly and where or wherein it was published, maybe also when. Today, however, unique identifiers like DOI, ISBN and URL can do that. Sometimes, many articles or chapters are cited in a bibliography that all come from the same collection or book – with editor often differing from author – whose information is repeated many times which could be solved by cross-references.

I also want to find a citation quickly and easily in a bibliography at the end. Obvious and short sort keys should help with that, but I may also skim through the bibliography without coming from the main prose and would like to know when there are several works by the same author, for instance. I think pictures, i.e. book covers, conference logos, software icons or author photos, could help as additional cues.

The year (or a more precise date) of when something was published may help to assert contemporary relevance and historic connections, otherwise it’s mostly helping to distinguish different works by the same author in a concise way.

In some fields of science conference proceedings, in others journal articles or even classic books are used as primary references. Sometimes, e.g. in the humanities or legal studies, one needs to distinguish sources of knowledge from objects of study which often also are written records.

I sometimes find it insightful to see in the bibliography on which other pages a reference has been cited – more so in books than articles, though.

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I couldn't find any research on best practices, (and when I tried to google for one, I've got all sorts of UX bibliographies ;-),

Here is how some online libraries are dealing with it:

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From what you have described, and from my experience of dealing with the related text media, I would do something like this:

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Note that some info in the tooltip is actionable: users could go straight to the research page or check all articles that refer to this one.

The real functionality delighters (in terms of Kano model) here would be the controls that would allow users to add the article author is referring to to the reading list, or to favorites, or if it's a book — to buy the book from the Amazon.

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There's no significant UX research on this but as a general rule, reference and citation style largely depends on the subject matter and the publishing body. Let me give you a few examples here:

  1. Harvard Referencing - Author-date or Author-Title or Author page enclosed in parentheses. The (Author-date) style is recommended by American Chemical Society and American Psychological Association. It is primarily used in the sciences and social sciences.

(Author-title) and (Author-page) is recommended by Modern Language Association and is followed mostly in arts and humanities.

  1. Citation Order System - You give a number in brackets that corresponds to the number of the source listed in the order in which they appear in the report. For example, [1]. This is mostly used in engineering and IEEE follows it.

For American Institute of Physics, references are also numbered in the text and in the reference list, with numbers repeated throughout the text as needed. We can go on here, but these examples give you the idea.

TL;DR - Follow the conventions used by the publishing body. The intended audience will make sense of it.

Quoting from Wikipedia:

Forms of citations generally subscribe to one of the generally accepted citations systems, such as the Oxford,[3] Harvard, MLA, American Sociological Association (ASA), American Psychological Association (APA), and other citations systems, as their syntactic conventions are widely known and easily interpreted by readers. Each of these citation systems has its respective advantages and disadvantages relative to the trade-offs of being informative (but not too disruptive) and thus are chosen relative to the needs of the type of publication being crafted.

  • I’m specifically asking what should be done (differently) if the style was focussed on reader experience rather than traditions. Let’s assume I’m a publisher in different fields who wants to get it right for once, consistently. – Crissov Aug 13 '15 at 19:14
  • I think it should be first defined who the reader is. As I mentioned, if the reader belongs to arts, humanities, engineering or science, the publisher should follow the relevant conventions. As far as research paper goes, following conventions is suggested as against try something radical. It's easier to process for the reader as they are already equipped with conventions. – Adit Gupta Aug 13 '15 at 19:20

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